For five years I listened to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, in which Vanessa
Zoltan and Casper ter Kuille read through all seven books, one chapter at a time. Casper, who is gay, invited listeners to consider where queerness might be hidden in the pages — not to place a stake in the ground where the author has not done so, but to be open to possibilities the author never imagined.
After reading this month’s selection, I was cleaning the kitchen and listening to Willie Nelson
sing “Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other,” the gay cowboy anthem. And as I
listened, I could not shake thoughts of Lavrans Bjorgulfson.
Sigrid Undset wrote the three books that make up Kristin Lavransdatter in the 1920s. The books are set in 14th century Norway, and when men do have secret fondness for other men, the characters condemn those feelings in the harshest of tones. I don’t think Lavrans likes men, but there is something about him that deeply puzzles me.
“He had never loved anyone.” Lavrans is the most pious person in the story, but his fasts don’t
seem to give him the freedom he longs for. I’m not talking about a specific secret sin that
Lavrans feels guilt over, but perhaps something quieter and stranger:
Why was he never able to love his wife the way she wished to be loved? “He had not
been able to.”
Why did he not consider loving his friend’s wife, who he had thought of from time to
time? “He could have loved someone too.”
Why was he so happy serving as a soldier in the company of men? “War … it had been a
joy, but there was no more war; his armor was hanging up in the loft, seldom used.”
Why was he such a good father to his daughters? “But the young ones in the nest … they
had been the little warm spot in his desolation, the most profound and sweetest pleasure
of his life.”
Why did he feel so at home in the forest, among the wild animals? “Then he found that
he thrived best out in the wilderness—up on the mountain plateaus, where every living
creature demands wide-open space, with room enough to flee.”
All these quotes come from the scene immediately following Kristin’s wedding, when Lavrans
and Ragnfrid become each other’s confessors. It’s devastating.
From this low point, they begin again — a new love between two old souls, married so young.
Their last scenes together are quite tender. Lavrans even gives her a new ring, gold with a blue
and white stone, and forbids her to give it to their daughters. As Kristin sits by her father’s
bedside while he dies, she comes to know a bit of this change in her parents:
Kristin knew that her father loved her no less than before. But she had never noticed
until now that he loved her mother.”
And not until after her father passes away, when she and her mother have their first and only
heart-to-heart in the whole novel, does she come to understand something of her parents’ love, the love of what Lavrans calls “faithful friends.” It’s a love that lays side by side in the dark, “their arms touching each other. After a moment they laced their fingers together.” That’s all.
I don’t have a label for Lavrans, this man I can picture taking care of his livestock, especially his beloved horses. In my imagination he wears pressed Wranglers and a Resistol and knows every living creature from here to the border. He never misses church. He’s had a lot of sorrows, but you wouldn’t know that to talk with him over a Shiner and brisket. He’s good to that wife of his. He loves those daughters. Fella throws one helluva party on holidays. He carves real nice too.
But he is kinda queer.
What the River Laag Sang
He was a foreigner
come to Norway to make his fortune
He was a soldier
St. Thomas heard his wounded cry
He was a father
three boys, three girls, countless fosters
He was a storyteller
knew the entire troll lineage (or made it up)
He was a horseman
the love of his life — training colts
He was a husband
too young, too strange to love
He was a landowner
his word, respected by men
He was a follower of Christ
observed every fast
kept the forgotten creed
turned five white stones into a cross
carried the crucifix out of the fire
let the Savior’s sad face console him
He did not love his wife
— not until the end —
not the way he loved the wilderness
all that lives unseen but
sung in the roar of the River Laag